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  • Writer's pictureDr Francesca Maclean


When any STEM company wants to address the gender inequity in their organisation, they will almost certainly propose a mentoring program for women. Mentoring is, undoubtedly valuable. I have been the beneficiary of mentoring by some impressive women leaders in Australia and had the privilege to mentor women from high school to graduates in industry. I am a believer.

I am a believer in mentoring being valuable and however, mentoring will not fix all of our gender problems in STEM. Gender inequity is a wicked problem, and there is no one, clear solution. We need to approach this complex problem with a portfolio of solutions. Mentoring has its place in our portfolio approach to achieving gender equity but it is not a silver bullet.

When mentoring is our only go-to for gender inequity in STEM companies, it can often have a ‘fix the women’ vibe (see Catherine Fox’s Stop Fixing Women for more on this). When we offer mentoring programs in isolation, it does not recognise the multitude of systemic barriers present in STEM workplaces. This approach can sometimes assume that women just need to get advice or talk to someone, when in fact what could be more beneficial to their experience and advancement would be a review of the management and promotion processes in an organisation.

This is why I think that if we are to offer women career-related mentoring programs, that we should also offer inclusive-behaviour and -culture building mentoring programs to men in the workplaces. Even better, implement a sponsorship program.

Put simply, a mentor talks to you and a sponsor talks about you. Sponsors are the ones advocating for you and your advancement when you are not in the room. Not surprisingly, a study by the Centre of Work-Life Policy found that an absence of advocacy from people in power for women:

“Women who are qualified to lead simply don’t have the powerful backing necessary to inspire, propel, and protect themselves on their journey through upper management.”

This backing is what we call sponsorship. Some people have issues with a formal sponsorship program for women in the workplace, with concerns ranging from the fact it is ‘inorganic’ or if we get to the heart of it: the backlash from men who wouldn't be able to access the formal program. But let’s face it, men already have access to a sponsorship program: it’s organic, and it’s called being a man in the workplace, where young men remind senior men of their younger selves and they naturally take on the role of sponsor (old boys club, anyone?).

As a young woman, it’s a bit easier for me to remind senior men of their daughters rather than their ambitious younger selves.

Even if they do recognise the skill and ambition in me that they had, a lot of the time there is little accountability associated with their support. They have the right platitudes and know what to say when it comes to panel events about diversity, however, few of these words convert to actions. I see too many smart and capable women overlooked in the early- to mid-career levels in STEM because they lack an accountable sponsor. When they are even more different than their leadership – say, a woman of colour, LGBTIQ, or have a disability, sponsorship can be even harder to come by naturally.

Without a sponsor, women fall - and are sometimes pushed - through the cracks.

A sponsorship program would introduce accountability within organisations for the advancement of women. Could you imagine how many women would reach senior and executive leadership levels if the promotions and bonuses of other senior leaders depended on it? I am sure they would find ways around the systemic and cultural biases that have led to a total remuneration pay gap of 23.7% in the professional, scientific, and technical services industry within Australia.

We need to be brave and welcome the accountability and power of sponsorship. We have so much ground to make up, so let’s add sponsorship to our portfolio of tactics to achieve gender equity.

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